“CAR!!!”, we would yell. The goalies would pick up the nets and the game would stop, with everyone making room for the car to pass. Everything was put back and we went right back into the game with the shout of “Game On!”. Endless hours were passed this way. Every day we were out there, learning something new from each other, improvising some kind of new move, trick or plan to give ourselves just the tiniest edge. This is where skills were built, dreams were lived out and it was the loom on which the fabric that binds community was created.
I rushed home from school, dropped my books inside the house, grabbed my hockey stick and went out to look for a hockey game. We lived on Broomfield Drive in Scarborough- a suburb of Toronto. The streets of Scarborough were full of impromptu hockey games. The same could be said of nearly any Canadian city at the time. If not on Broomfield, then over on Idehill, or on Obris or up on Hornshill. They were everywhere …it’s just what we did. You walk up and ask to join, always the answer was yes. Off you would go, playing your heart out until it was time to head home to dinner or the sun started to go down.
You would laugh and develop camaraderie with kids whom you wouldn’t likely see through any other method. Perhaps they went to a different school, or were older or ran in a different social circle. Sometimes you played with kids you didn’t even like. It was satisfying to dish a perfect saucer pass through the legs of a defenseman right onto the stick of a teammate who maybe hours earlier had teased you in relentless fashion at school. He would bang home the goal, trot by you for a high-five and say “hey, beauty of a pass, eh!” Always there was something to appreciate about a teammate, and a grudging respect earned by your opponent.
Finding a game with slightly older kids was a test. They were bigger, a little faster usually, and stronger. You had to bring your best and be prepared for a rough reception. You think Wall Street is cutthroat? It has nothing on Broomfield Drive hockey games with the older kids. “Mean” doesn’t even begin to describe it…and yet I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
I grew up in Minnesota and Ontario. In the US, Minnesota is the cradle of hockey heritage and talent. Just ask the “Miracle on Ice” team of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. 13 of the 20 players were from Minnesota…as was Coach Brooks. Ontario …well Ontario is in Canada and we all know that Canada is King when it comes to generating hockey talent. Growing up a hockey kid, I was a huge fan of the Montreal Canadiens, the Minnesota North Stars, and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When I was young Montreal had fabulously talented teams that were a pure joy to watch. I was always pretending to be some player or another from the team, running around playing street hockey in Toronto. Usually I was Ken Dryden, star goaltender for the Canadiens. The North Stars were just undeniably Minnesotan. There was something humble, understated and modest about them – and their fans were similar in their quiet devotion. Or..not-so-quiet when Chicago came to town.
The Leafs, with stars such as Dave Keon, Borje Salming and Tim Horton, were always a team to reckon with but I dragged my feet when it came to becoming a fan. Every kid around me was a leafs fan and I was determined to be different! But it’s hard not to appreciate the heritage, tradition and history of these franchises.
These teams were fuel for my imagination when I was young. They propelled me to the greatest heights as I daydreamed about playing hockey under the bright lights of the Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens or the Met Center. Still, I delight in turning on the TV every Saturday night for Hockey Night In Canada when I can watch one of my favorite teams battle it out with whomever they are playing.
Watching a Dream Play Out:
Such was the scene again this last Saturday…except what I witnessed was my dear Toronto Maple Leafs enduring an embarrassment of epic proportions. And you know what? I was THRILLED about it! I couldn’t be happier! No …I’m not sadistic or completely crazy, it’s that what I was witnessed was a dream come true for someone. It was high drama and a story of the type that only happens through bizarre circumstance, strength of will and extraordinary character.
In Toronto, the Carolina Hurricanes came to play the Leafs. Most people expected the Leafs to win this game. However they did not. They lost 6-3 to the Hurricanes. This, in itself, is not extraordinary …but it is the manner in which the Hurricanes won that is truly exciting. The Hurricanes faced not just one but TWO goalie injuries during the course of the game. Both their starting and backup goalies were injured …this prompted a situation rarely seen to occur. The “House Goalie” in Toronto needed to be summoned to play. Each team pays someone with goaltending experience to be at each home game in case there is an emergency. On Saturday night, with both Carolina goaltenders out of action, David Ayers heard his number called.
Enter The Hero:
Ayers is a 42 year old Zamboni driver for the Toronto Marlies – the farm club for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a kidney transplant survivor, and sometimes stands in as a practice goalie for the teams. Toronto pays Ayers $500 to be on hand as the Emergency Back Up Goalie in the event of multiple injuries. On this amazing night, Ayers, summoned to the net for Carolina, played half of an NHL hockey game, managed to hold on to garner a win in his only NHL game, become the First Star of the game. Hockey Night In Canada interviewed him after the game, and he entered the Carolina locker room to resounding cheers and accolades from the entire team. You could hear it outside the room, as the HNIC reporter stood outside.
It was an astonishing accomplishment given the level of professional talent on the Toronto franchise. Toronto isn’t just another hockey team – they have elite scoring talent and are universally considered one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league. I can only imagine how Ayers felt, and the overwhelming fear, nervousness and emotions he went through that night. To emerge with a win is stunning.
To have a front row seat to this spectacle was breathtaking. I watched it with boyish glee, as I’m sure did the 18,000 fans in attendance. It brought me right back to the streets of Scarborough and I knew this was one of those things Ayers himself had probably dreamed about …never expecting to called upon or to get the chance to live this dream. He played in an NHL hockey game and recorded a win at 42 years old. The oldest goalie to ever win his debut game in the NHL. He is also the only emergency back up goalie to be the winning goalie of record.
The Carolina Team:
Ayers was not the only star in that game. Once their regular goalies were injured and Ayers came in, the team did something amazing. They committed themselves to playing the best hockey they were capable of and giving 110% to this game. It showed. It was impressive. The Leafs seemed powerless to stop what was happening.
Watching this drama unfold, minute after minute, as Toronto became increasingly frustrated and embarrassed, as Ayers made a few saves, as Carolina threw themselves, bodily, in front of every shot they could manage to get to, I couldn’t help grinning. So often in professional sports egos or apathy gets in the way, but what I saw tonight was the ultimate expression of a team doing everything they could to come together give their all for each other…and their accidental goalie.
At one point, Ayers said, Eric Haula (Carolina forward) skated up to him and said “We don’t care if you let in 10 goals …just have fun here.” It was the perfect thing to say. It’s something I want to remember. Too often we forget to have fun. Sage advice from the veteran player.
What can we walk away with?
Today, the Carolina team is selling David Ayers t-shirts. Royalties go to Ayers and they donate a portion of the sale to a children’s foundation. Aside from being clever marketing, it also says something about the franchise. It’s typical to the hockey community and is emblematic of why hockey remains honest and genuine at its core. The impromptu interactions with fans captured weekly by television broadcasts underly a human element to the players that seldom is seen in other sports. It’s what makes hockey special.
So we have learned that $500 can rent a hero. The ordinary person can do extraordinary things…not just in sport, but anywhere. We don’t need to be afforded the same international stage that Ayers was allotted to become a hero. I know a lot of parents that are heroes or heroines every day. A lot of people deserve to be heroes just for getting up and doing their level best to make the world around them better. Thinking about this example makes me want to start my day asking myself “who’s hero am I going to be today?” Who’s hero will you be today? Maybe it’s enough to be our own heroes. Perhaps I don’t even need a cape…and I already have a t-shirt .